Jake Lynch

George W Bush explicitly likened his so-called “war on terrorism” to the generational challenge posed by the Cold War, but it never convinced to anything like the same extent.

In December, 2001, shortly after the ‘9/11’ attacks, three respected institutions – the Pew Research Centre, Princeton Survey Research Associates and the International Herald Tribune newspaper – joined forces to conduct an interesting poll. They identified 275 people of influence in politics, media, business and culture, in a total of 24 countries, and asked them whether they believed their compatriots saw the attacks as something America had brought upon itself – a response, in other words, to its foreign, military and economic policies and their perceived effect on people’s lives. This view – what the writer and Sydney Peace Prize Laureate, Arundhati Roy, calls the “context side” in the “fierce, unforgiving fault line that runs through the contemporary discourse on terrorism” – was shared by large majorities in the Middle East, narrower majorities elsewhere, and 58% overall.

If we accept that acts of political violence are indissociable from context, that they can be explained, if not excused, by people’s experience of identifiable factors in everyday life, then it makes sense to talk about responses other than war. Indeed, months later, in March, 2002, leaders of 50 poor countries gathered in Monterrey, Mexico, to press for greater collective action to meet the Millennium Development Goals, set by the UN to halve global poverty by 2015, and speakers lined up to link this project directly to the threat of ‘terrorism’.

“In the wake of September 11, we will forcefully demand that development, peace and security are inseparable”, declared UN General Assembly president Han Seung-soo. “To speak of development is to speak also of a strong and determined fight against terrorism”, the conference heard, from then Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo. The quotes are taken from a report of the event by the Associated Press news agency, which opened with a line of context: “Leaders of poor nations warned their rich counterparts that if they want a world free of terrorism, they will need to pay for it”.

Hard on the heels of the Monterrey meeting, figures released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development showed how poorer countries were being left behind as they opened their markets at the behest of International Financial Institutions. “We have seen a de-coupling of the trade engine from the growth engine in developing countries over the past two decades”, was the verdict from UNCTAD Senior Economic Affairs Officer, Richard Kozul-Wright. The liberalisation of global trade, a central plank of neo-liberalism, was exacerbating inequality and injustice, the very issues most salient in the context Roy and others constructed for the 9/11 attacks and later incidents.

The poverty of Atlanticism

America is a classic example of a “polysemic” concept; any account of its history, politics or values must be a plural narrative. The sheer plenitude of US cultural production means we can each construct our ‘own’ distinctive version from a limitless supply of ideas and images, foreshadowed in Paul Simon’s evocative lyric: “we’ve all come to look for America”. Anatol Lieven divides the multiplicity of the US polity into two broad historical tributaries: on one hand, its “civic creed”, beginning with the opening words of the Constitution, “We the People”, and, on the other, a “Jacksonian” militarism.

Useful as Lieven’s formulations are, for conceptualising rival forms of nationalism, the present conjuncture has seen US responses to conflict, in effect, lifted out of either of these streams and launched, instead, into the unpredictable currents of corporate-driven globalisation. The author, William Pfaff, whose books appear on countless International Relations syllabi, used a syndicated column to recall the Great Transformation wrought upon capitalism by the industrial age, which “tore from their local roots the economic markets that since medieval times and before had been tied to communities, and had evolved through the needs and adaptations of those communities and their immediate neighbours”.

This was, he pointed out, “the epoch that provoked socialism” and various efforts to “restore human values to economic life”. Over the years this new version of capitalism had been “civilized, or half-tamed, until the arrival of globalization”, whereupon “technology once again was eagerly used to destroy existing capitalism by repeating the two crimes of assassination that had destroyed the pre-capitalist economy: the use of technology to expand markets so widely as to destroy existing national and international regulations, and second, once again to commodify labor”.

The gleaming artefacts of our post-modern, networked lifestyles – email, GPS, satellite TV – came out of America, and stemmed, at least in part, from innovations by the military-industrial complex. That selfsame technology has extended the reach of markets, and amplified movements within them, to such an extent as to create conditions of intensifying toil, matched by corrosive uncertainty, even for the relatively well-off. What is so admired about the US is the flipside of what is mistrusted, resented and dreaded in much of the rest of the world. Even the appeal of the movies can no longer be entrusted purely to ‘pull’ factors. Naomi Klein observes that the destruction of the Iraqi state through “shock and awe” opened the country’s borders, so that irreplaceable artefacts of its indigenous culture were looted from museums, packed up and shipped out, just as trucks thundered in with consignments of DVD players for sale in Baghdad’s markets. A Pentagon planner, Major Ralph Peters, thus characterised the function of US armed forces in a post-Cold War world:

“There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. Violent conflict will dominate the headlines, but cultural and economic struggles will be steadier and ultimately more decisive. The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing”.

Events have rendered this logic visible to the extent that relationships with the US now bear the imprint of a third crisis of military legitimacy, to follow the earlier ones after Vietnam and the Cold War. Another survey, this time commissioned by the new United States Studies Centre, at the University of Sydney, revealed that in 2007, fully 48% of people in Australia – generally regarded as the most sedulous of all Washington’s camp-followers – now favoured the adoption of an independent foreign policy, at the expense of the US alliance.

Given the intensifying impetus to further wars, evidenced by the evolution of media strategies and underpinned by the corporate and political logic of neo-liberalism, the tensions uncovered by these polls, and manifest in global public discourses, are likely to carry on growing. Patrick Tyler wrote, in the New York Times in February 2003, that “the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion”.

The British media researcher, Brian McNair, observes:

    “While the desire for control of the news agenda, and for definitional power in the journalistic construction of meaning, are powerful and ever-present, not least in a time of war and perceived global crisis, the capacity of elite groups to wield it effectively is more limited than it has been since the emergence of the first news media in the sixteenth century”.

Any struggle for human values in economic and social life is in the opposite corner from the US military-industrial complex, and any effort to support or restore those values must now include, as a primary concern, opposition to America’s wars. Contestation over news agendas and attempts to roll back the hegemony of business lobbies over public policy making, are part of the same fabric of resistance woven in earlier generations by the women of Greenham Common and the Nuclear Freeze Movement.

It is now increasingly clear that calls for public intervention in global markets, to uphold worker rights and protections, and support for continued military alliance with the United States – the time-honoured ‘Atlanticist’ (or, from an Australian perspective perhaps, ‘Pacificist’) position of mainstream opinion in trade union and labour movements in the rich world – are not compatible, but contradictory. The struggles can no longer be dissociated from one another.


Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney

This column is an edited excerpt from ‘Coalition of the Unwilling: the phenomenology and political economy of US militarism’, his chapter in Ending War, Building Peace, edited by Lynda-ann Blanchard and Leah Chan and published by Sydney University Press. To order click:


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Feb 2010.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: THE ‘WAR ON TERRORISM’ AND THE STRUGGLE FOR CONTEXT, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.